Having conversations across the creek

Breaking down the walls between the sciences and the humanities is the aim of a new series of events, as EVANA HO uncovers.

One Friday a month, two scholars from the sciences make their way across Sullivans Creek to the ANU Humanities Research Centre (HRC) in the AD Hope Building.

There they meet two humanities scholars or social scientists and each deliver a short, TED-style talk about their research before joining to field questions from the audience.

It’s a deceptively simple concept that is built upon a rich and complex history – a longstanding debate about the divide between the humanities and the sciences.

The initiative is titled Conversations Across the Creek and devised by HRC Director Professor Will Christie.

For Christie, one of the most famous commentaries on the great discipline divide is from a man with a stake in each camp.

CP Snow was a British academic chemist by profession and a novelist by vocation. His professional experiences, coupled with his experience of the English university system, gave rise to his Rede Lectures: The two cultures and the scientific revolution.

“The basic premise behind his generalisations,” Christie says, “was that within universities there were two classes of intellectual interests who just weren't talking to each other. Or who had stopped talking to each other.

“A lot of his social generalisations, many of which were suspect, had to do with things like the English class system, identifying a lot of the scientists from a working class background.”

“The scientists, Snow argued, notoriously, ‘had the future in their bones’.

“And the scientists couldn't get on with literary people who were invariably backward-looking and traditional and therefore resisted novelty, resisted change.”

Although Snow was speaking in an English context and much of what he says does not translate to the modern university, Christie says that Australia suffers from similar problems of mutual incomprehension.

“There’s little understanding of contemporary science involved in traditional humanities subjects like, philosophy, history, and literature.”

These two “evolving classes” remained firmly separate during Snow’s lifetime and generally continue to do so today.

“How often do we actually get together with people working in different areas?” Christie asks.

As a result, he sought to redress this problem when he took the helm of the HRC.

“It seems to me that, as the Humanities Research Centre, we've got an obligation to look at the way humanities interacts with various other interest areas, disciplines, institutions, all those things,” he says.

“So what I decided to do was every year to have a major colloquium in which humanities talks to some other major intellectual or social endeavour.”

The first of these colloquiums was The Humanities and The Sciences: A Conversation, held in October 2015.

“Where do you go from there?” Christie asks. “You have a nice day, everybody agrees there’s a separation. What's going to be done about it?

“So we're now having monthly meetings across the creek, which is a way of keeping the conversation going.”

Underlying the Conversations Across the Creek series is the notion that there is no good reason for the division.

So Christie enlisted the help of Professor Joan Leach, Director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.

“I asked Joan if she would be willing to underwrite the process so that our colleagues could see, in the actual structure of the event, that there was an investment from both sides of the creek,” he explains.

As for how Christie will measure the success of Conversations Across the Creek, he referred to ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt AC, who launched the first event of the series.

“It was the Vice-Chancellor himself who said he wasn't that interested in grant statistics – he's much more interested in people actually doing interesting and constructive research,” Christie says.

“That's I think the contribution of our series, to create the conditions where we can have this kind of conversation.

“I'm hoping that an idea or a paradigm from one discipline can be of real use to another discipline that hasn't been exposed to it, and that that will help shape the way they go about their work.”